Plaudits to the publisher for their tactile, trim presentation of this small-is-beautiful novella. And to the Australian author herself for a rewarding - and riddling - little read.

It's a ghost story: the sub-title says so. It's set in inner-suburban Sydney. Frances and Charlie have just arrived there from refined, restrained Melbourne and plunge into a place where "the streets ran everywhere, like something spilled", and where trendies carry business cards describing themselves as a "creator" (cue gnashing of teeth).

From the start, places and events are immediate yet elusive. Frances, walking her neurotic bull terrier, glimpses another dog and its enigmatic, indeterminate owner. Physical and intangible begin sliding past each other. Small encounters glow with significance. Conversations are pregnant with half-comprehended import.

For all their worldly success and vigour, Frances' friends and colleagues seem unsure of their own reality. A dinner party is clamorous with confidence yet holds strange and fearful gaps. A visit from a teenage stepson brings fragments of half-comprehension. Watching and talking, Frances feels how "everything was foreshortened, time shifted ... the morning swayed".

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The shade of her partner's predatory mother hovers. So, through a sequence of unsettling, computerised phone calls, does his difficult ex-wife. Or do they? Because the skill of this small mystery lies in Kretser's balance of the visionary and the quotidian; the way events are potentially terrible but utterly everyday.

Characters talk frenetically, yet without resolution. When Frances herself pursues the indefinable, the sense of menace and mystery only grows. Everything is closely, rigorously observed, yet glides out of reach.

Are these spectres from the past? Glimpses of a future or the touch of something parallel? Or simply the disturbance of finding that one's new partner is no dragon-slayer, and indeed has an over-40s weak bladder?

Events remain ambivalent and unresolved right up to the edgy epilogue. Springtime is a cool, haunting evocation of what we sometimes sense may be there, but can never hold. Read it closely.

Springtime
by Michelle de Kretser
(Allen & Unwin $18.99)

David Hill is a New Plymouth writer.